Until I interviewed the Dark Ranger (aka Kevin Poe), I hadn’t thought much about the seeming disappearance of the stars in the sky. I knew my suburban existence had something to do with not seeing as many stars as I remember as a kid, but I also figured I had romanticized that magical sparkly starry sky of my summer-camp days in the Berkshire mountains of Western Massachusetts. The other time I remember a fabulously star-filled sky was during a honeymoon trip to a pretty remote island – the tiki torches didn’t seem to diminish the twinkling of that night sky much at all.
Kevin (who I kept calling Ken during our first interview – Sorry Ken, I mean Kevin! Public apology #2), is a park ranger in Mt. Zion National Park and has made it somewhat of a life’s mission to help illuminate (cute, right?) us about why we need to start paying attention to light pollution.
Sometimes terms like sky glow, glare, light trespass, light clutter and over-illumination are used to describe excessive night light’s intrusion on a naturally dark sky. Here’s the International Dark Sky Association’s glossary of relevant terms about light pollution page. Also, if you want to see where light clusters around cities and towns are and what they look like from the sky, here’s a great interactive Google ‘night lights’ map that you can search for your own area and see how it looks from the night sky.
Good reasons to be concerned about light pollution:
Waste of Energy – Let’s face it, there is probably a lot of over-illuminating going on, especially here in the US, where we have an obsession with keeping the lights on all night. According to the International Dark Sky Association, we burn up a whopping 22,000 gigawatt-hours of useless light that is pointed up towards the sky! Their math has this at an estimated cost (in terms of money) of $2.2 billion a year. In terms of carbon footprint?
3.6 million tons of coal or 12.9 million barrels of oil is used
to generated this type of lost light
Ecosystems & Wildlife – While light pollution can disrupt elements of the ecosystem in subtle ways that may ultimately have lasting effects, it has a definite and negative impact on nocturnal animals. In general all animals (including humans) have a biological code that follows a circadian rhythm, which is just a inherent natural clock.
Mammals: If mammals are exposed to too much artificial light at night, they can experience things like an impairment to their natural night vision, lowered ability to reproduce (threatening propagation of the species), and exposure to predators. Birds are particularly hard hit by light pollution.
Birds: Many species rely on darkness to hunt, and birds can become drawn to an artificial light source like a beam that can results in a number of negative effects. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the number of birds that die due to attraction to tall towers that are lit at night is 4 to 5 million! Migrating birds can be thrown off course from artificial light at night never to reach their destination.
Reptiles: Sea turtles are a tragic example of how coastal light pollution can harm reptiles. Sea turtle hatchlings crawl to the ocean instinctively by following the stars and moon, but coastal night lighting can confuse them and cause them to go in the wrong direction and they become exhausted and dehydrated and expire before making it to the ocean.
Insects, amphibians and of course humans are also effected and there is a lot of research still taking place to understand the full impact of this type of environmental hazard that has mainly been riding under the radar for a lot of us.
So, here’s what you can do!
- Minimize outdoor lighting - only have it where you really need it
- Install a full cutoff fixture - full cutoff fixtures reduce the chance for light to escape above the horizontal plane – keeping the light focused downward where it is needed
- Put your outdoor lights on timers - obviously this will help those of us who sometimes forget to flip the switch on the way to bed
- Get motion-sensor lighting – hopefully you can find one that works better than ours and of course, this helps minimize lighting that doesn’t need to be on all the time
- Colored lights can help – using yellow or amber lights can reduce the negative impact of night lighting
- Get active - find out what the lighting plan is all about in your community and make sure the powers that be are educated about how important this issue is
- Listen to the Green Divas: Short & Sassy 1.5 minute piece on Light Pollution
- Listen to the Green Divas Radio Show interview with Kevin Poe, the Dark Ranger